Short story collections by new authors can be difficult beasts to approach. All too often, such volumes are products of the hothouse environment of a pricey MFA program or an elitist writers’ workshop that is cited in the bio and accompanied by the anxious addendum, “The author is working on a novel.” In the absence of that clearly more important novel, the casual reader is typically confronted with dense, convoluted tales that lack either coherence or interest.
Such is decidedly not the case with Abby Geni’s short story collection, “The Last Animal.” Though the theme of the collection is “people who use the interface between the human and the natural world to contend with their modern challenges,” Geni’s true unifying subject, perhaps an unconscious one, is the provocative and frightening idea of the individual who disappears without a trace.
A key character vanishes suddenly, without leaving a single clue as to the character’s whereabouts, sparking a crisis in the narrator. This plot device appears in no less than three of Geni’s 10 stories. In a further five stories, it is the narrator who does the vanishing, allowing the reader to chart the fugitive’s progress from dissimulation to revelation — or to deeper concealment from those who are desperately searching for them.
The concept of “one who disappears” is far more fascinating than Geni’s various nature/wild animal/wind-in-the-trees devices, which are inherent facets of the plots of some stories, but blatantly shoehorned into others. Though she employs everything from redwood forests to sea turtles to friendly dogs to farmed ostriches, these are not Geni’s true narrative tools. Her strength lies in her ability to portray the uneasy stasis that exists between the terror of discovering that a child, a sibling or a lover is gone, and the realization that this pain and uncertainty must be lived with because it may never be resolved.
“I remember every moment of my two-day jaunt in the desert with grim clarity … I wanted to become part of the dunes,” one young desaparecido recalls. “Fireflies flickered beyond her windows as Lucy sat on her bed, packing her sweaters and coats,” says another narrator, inviting the reader to run away with the heroine. And in a most satisfying sacrifice enacted by an abandoned wife, “As she watched her husband’s final note crumbling into windblown ash, she felt something more — light and airy, as though wings were beating somewhere above her person.” Closure is an evanescent thing in Geni’s fiction, and she handles its fleeting nature beautifully.
At her core, Geni is sincere. It is doubtful whether she is capable of being wry, ironic or unaffectedly humorous in her prose. Her stories are simply written and accessible, suspended like polished jewels within her collection. Unlike many of her heavily workshopped peers, she presents herself as an author who believes wholeheartedly in her plot and the characters that inhabit it. No tricks. No gimmicks.
When Geni allows herself to be genuine, as in her heartwrenching exploration of teenage romantic obsession and self-sacrifice, “Dharma at the Gate,” her intentions shine through in evocative phrases like “mist curdles out of the gutters,” and “she had shut her heart up like a house in winter,” and “I glanced up and saw the sky netted with stars.” Her simple images become the best type of metaphor married to realism.
But in Geni’s weakest stories (an undeveloped tale of miscarriage and infertility flippantly healed by a trip to the woods titled “Fire Blight;” an “Eat, Pray, Love” knock-off minus the eating and the praying, “The Last Animal;” and an unreadable pseudo-myth titled “Landscaping”) the reader can practically hear Geni murmuring, “Good enough,” while hastily scribbling a half-imagined scenario populated with lightly sketched characters. When she disdains to take a step back and see the story through the reader’s eyes, her prose weakens and becomes alienating, sparking the reader to demand, “Why are you telling me this? Why should I care?”
Ultimately, “The Last Animal” provokes a single question: Just what does Geni find so compelling about the sudden and silent disappearance of a person? In the majority of her stories, this absence is framed as a purely solipsistic action, though in three of the most powerful stories — the nearly perfect “Dharma at the Gate,” the award-winning “Captivity” and the flawed but haunting “The Girls of Apache Bryn Mawr” — the disappearance is framed as an involuntary, violent act that is never resolved for the characters or the reader. The emotion that Geni’s reader is compelled to feel throughout her stories is a sense of loss that lasts long after closing the covers of her book.